The Art of Killing is intriguing and I have mixed feelings about it. I find it daring, original, surreal and often so unbelievable that it makes you wonder whether what you see is acted or not. And then I find it obscene, questionable and eventually unnecessary.
A bit of background history is necessary to understand the film better and that’s something Mr Oppenheimer hardly provides. In 1965, Indonesia suffered a military coup. The president at that time, was a guy named Sukarno. He eventually stood in office until 1967. But the truth is that his power slowly melted from the military coup on. A key character in this coup was a certain Suharto, who eventually took Sukarno’s place, and became the second president of Indonesia. More accurately, he became a military dictator.
Now, at the time of the coup, the Indonesians have been convinced by the army and Islamic and Catholic student groups that the coup was the communists’ hand. Sources say the international community has been convinced too, but in fact it didn’t need much convincing since Suharto’s right-wing regime fitted their Cold War tactics and that was most important.
Blaming the communists was in Suharto’s interest, because the communist party was supporting Sukarno (the first president). Getting rid of such a large support group was necessary for Suharto. And so a big purge followed, a process of ‘cleaning up communists, poor farmers, left-wing intellectuals and ethnic Chinese, basically any category a bloody regime identifies as the state enemy in order to get rid of opposition. And a helping hand came from a paramilitary organization called Pancasila Youth. This is basically a bunch of aggressive opportunists legitimized by who organized death squads in that period.
The Act of Killing tells two stories in one. One is the story of the purge and the film tells it by putting together members of such a death squad (in Northern Sumatra) and making them reenact their actions, killings, interrogations in any cinema style they prefer (and they have some kitschy-heroic fantasies about how this reenactment should be, mixed with some surreal representations of unknown origin). The other story is about their role and power in nowadays Indonesia. Past and present together in one (camera) shot.
The simple idea of having murderers showing you what they did in a ‘pretend-we-are-making-a-film-way’ is disturbing. What’s more disturbing is that they don’t regret a thing, they are proud. What’s even more disturbing than that, is that they have a normal life, they are considered heroes in society, they get invited to talk shows, they have normal families they care about. In short, they don’t have easily identifiable traits, nothing of the characteristics that might come to mind when you think of a remorseless murderer. And they have a good life.
The main character, a man called Anwar Congo, is a grandpa who can explain his grand-kids that they should be kind to animals. Something else he can explain is how he used to kill people using a wire, so that the mess caused by the blood would be minimal. He can also show how he was dancing while doing it. And telling and showing gives him satisfaction.
There are many scenes, the show don’t tell kind, that portray these people’s role in current Indonesia. For example, the prime-minister comes to thank Pancasila Youth for their loyal service to society. We see the TV shows portraying them as heroes. We also see a local Pancasila Youth leader extorting Chinese shop owners. And not only he takes their money but he humiliates them too and acts as if the World is his. In a way, it is.
Making a film like this seems questionable simply because by agreeing to ‘play’ with these guys, it feels like you’re giving them just another stage to show off. And they do show off. They think they’re really great. It is often frustrating to witness that. Watching it you feel that they should know, they should be shown what they did and be confronted with it. They should suffer remorse. But you know what? They just don’t. There is something truly obscene in they gaiety. And it seems unnecessary that people who suffered at their hand have to see them reenacting stuff and being in this documentary.
But. This film is not for those people. Those people have to suffer their abuses anyway, some of them very often. Some people have to see them on national TV telling their sick stories. Anward Congo and his companions from Pancasila Youth run the political show and that’s a fact. From an outside neutral point of view making this film is weird. But in fact there is probably no better way to tell this story. There is no better way to witness who these people are but having them be in their element. And it is probably the closest we can get to the feeling of frustration and injustice they probably inflict in many people who suffered because of them.
The Act of Killing is a weird film. Frustrating. Daring. And unusual. And probably overrated. But nevertheless worth watching.